Online Church Cannot Replicate the Physical Church

No matter how convenient online church is, there is so much more to gain by being part of a local physical assembly.

On the 19th of March 2020, the World Health Organisation announced that the Covid-19 outbreak had become a pandemic. Consequently, governments across the globe incorporated lockdowns into their guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. For many of us, it was the first time we had seen churches being forced to close. With the pandemic now over, the online church has remained. However, should it stay and could it replace the physical church?

The accessibility of church

A huge benefit of not being able to meet physically is that many churches have developed an online platform which allows them to stream services online. This online streaming platform allows churches to remain connected with their congregation and their wider community. This is a major blessing and should not be undermined. Given that many churches still can’t meet physically, having an online presence allows for community, albeit online. Data suggests that heading into Easter 2020 churches experienced greater online attendance. Yet, by June 2020 71% of pastors report attendance to have either plateaued or decreased (See The ChurchPulse Weekly Podcast). Whilst there are a plethora of hypotheses as to why online attendance has decreased, I’ll focus on just one – the local gathering of the body was always meant to be physical.

We must meet in person

The word ekklesia is the Greek word translated as the church. It has two derived meanings from scripture. The old testament defines the ekklesia as the general assembly of Jewish people, particularly for a religious purpose (Deuteronomy 9:10, 18:16) and in the new testament the ekklesia defines the gathering of those who place their faith in Christ (Matthew 16:18), Christians who gather in a particular region (Acts 5:11) or of a congregational meeting in a particular place e.g. a house (Romans 16:5). What we glean from the last of these definitions is that the local church is a physical gathering.

Much of the new testament are letters written to churches, with the authors expressing the desire for the church to meet physically (Acts 2:46, 20:7; Romans 1:11) . Communicating by letter wasn’t enough then, and meeting online won’t be enough now. The Greek word for ‘one another’ occurs about 100 times in the new testament, with approximately 59 of these commands being how believers are to relate to one another. These commands, such as bearing with one another, are difficult to do online. Remember obedience to commands is not merely doing them with your hands, but also doing them with your heart. This is what Christ teaches us during the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). It’s easier to be kind to someone that you can’t see physically, can you extend that same kindness when you see that annoying brother face to face? Meeting physically creates an environment for interaction that can’t be replicated online.

Now, I’m sure there are those who will point out that in 10 AD, for example, there was no online option available. But that doesn’t mean that people weren’t growing apathetic towards meeting physically. The book of Hebrews has multiple themes but one that is particularly pertinent for our times is persevering in faith. Notably, the writer of Hebrews links our fellowship with other believers in our local church as an important weapon in our arsenal to persevere in faith.

22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:22-25)

Do you notice how many personal pronouns are in these verses? None. The writer of Hebrews continuously links the vitality of our faith within a church community. Meaning our growth in faith, in hope and in love is fundamentally tied to Christians globally and more specifically Christians locally. When we neglect or undermine the physical gathering of the body we are missing out on the encouragement that scripture declares meeting physically provides.

Rethinking Church

Nathan Nwanji wrote an excellent article on church history and how we as believers have an ancient faith. Whilst we certainly experience a variety of different challenges as time evolves, there isn’t anything new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Covid-19 isn’t the first plague that the Church has had to deal with and if Jesus tarries it won’t be the last. How we continue to respond to post the pandemic will be critical. There is indeed much to think about allegiance to God, obeying our government, loving our neighbour, accessibility to church etc. Whilst there is some freedom in how accessible we can make church what we cannot allow is this notion that the online church can replace the local church. According to the scriptures, there is too much at stake to even consider that possibility.

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